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According to the National Institute of Mental Health, eating disorders are serious and potentially life-threatening conditions that can involve significant disruptions to eating behavior and eating-related thoughts and emotions .
Bulimia, anorexia, binge-eating disorder, and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) are all examples of eating disorders. These illnesses can cause severe social, educational, and work-related difficulties and lead to concerning physical symptoms.
When someone struggles with an eating disorder, they can also suffer from a wide range of health complications. This FAQ article explores some of the internal health risks associated with common eating disorders.
What Is the Internal Impact of Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders are linked to a variety of medical concerns that can range from mild to severe. Below are some commonly reported complications, by eating disorder type.
- Weakened bones
- Increased risk for fractures
- Kidney disease
- Low blood pressure
- Heart damage
- Liver problems
- Low white blood cell count
- Lack of menstruation
- Loss of muscle mass
- Damage to the brain
- Loss of dental enamel
- Lack of menstruation
- Tearing of the esophagus
- Irritation of the esophagus
- Electrolyte imbalances, including hypokalemia, which can lead to cardiac arrythmias
Binge-eating disorder may increase the risk for:
- High cholesterol
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Certain cancers
- Chronic pain
Eating disorder complications have a variety of causes. Among the common causes are restricting food intake and purging, which can put enormous stress on a person’s body, potentially resulting in malnutrition, dehydration, and changes in bodily processes.
Does Anorexia Cause High Blood Pressure?
Someone who is struggling with anorexia typically feels immense fear about gaining weight, has distorted thoughts and beliefs about their weight, and restricts food intake in an unhealthy way.
When the body fails to receive the energy it needs, the heart may be placed under stress, which can cause a person’s pulse to slow. People who have anorexia commonly display low blood pressure (hypotension) as well as a slow heart rate (called bradycardia), which is present in up to 95% of patients . Tachycardia, or rapid heart rate, can also occur with anorexia and may indicate a serious complication .
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is not typically associated with anorexia. However, a 2019 case report described three cases of portal hypertension (hypertension in the portal vein) in people who were struggling with anorexia . The patients in the report had received diagnoses of anorexia nervosa, binge-eating/purging type, and engaged in self-induced vomiting and laxative abuse during their illnesses .
Can Eating Disorders Cause Seizures?
Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia can result in severe dehydration, for example, when someone limits food or water intake or engages in purging behaviors such as vomiting. Dehydration and the resulting electrolyte imbalances can put a person at risk for seizures.
Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, which is a serious potential complication of anorexia, may also lead to seizures. According to an article from Health, dangerously low blood sugar levels make it hard for your brain to function, which can increase your seizure risk .
Additionally, in people who are suffering from eating disorders, seizures may be the result of refeeding syndrome, a serious condition that can occur when someone consumes food and water too quickly after a period of malnutrition.
Can Bulimia Cause GERD?
If you are suffering from bulimia, you may find yourself trapped in a painful cycle of binge eating and compensatory behaviors that could include vomiting, diuretic abuse, or extreme amounts of exercise.
If you regularly self-induce vomiting, your gastrointestinal tract can suffer from repeated exposure to stomach acid, which can lead to symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.
People who have GERD experience the uncomfortable effects of stomach acid flowing backward into the esophagus. If you are struggling with GERD, you may experience symptoms such as heartburn, chest pain, difficulty swallowing, and vocal cord inflammation.
How Long Before Bulimia Damages the Esophagus?
Digestive symptoms, such as a sore throat or stomach pain, are often the first physical signs indicating that you might be suffering from bulimia. Over time, these symptoms may become more serious and affect other areas of your gastrointestinal system. Complications in the esophagus can include inflammation, ulcers, and bleeding, as well as dangerous tears and ruptures caused by the force of self-induced vomiting.
The progression and severity of bulimia can vary depending on the individual, with some people purging a few times a week and others doing it multiple times a day. In all cases, seeking qualified eating disorder treatment will likely be the most effective way to prevent ongoing gastrointestinal damage. Specialized eating disorder treatment can help you stop the behaviors that may be causing harm as well as treat your physical symptoms.
With early, well-coordinated care, it is possible to treat the digestive complications of bulimia and reduce or reverse damage to the digestive tract .
Can Bulimia Cause Cancer?
Bulimia may increase a person’s risk for esophageal cancer. One possible cause of esophageal cancer among people who have bulimia is a condition called Barrett’s esophagus, which, like many eating disorder complications, can develop in response to gastric acid exposure over time.
However, people who have bulimia can develop esophageal cancer without first showing signs of Barrett’s esophagus. Additionally, in a study of 3,617 people who had received inpatient care for eating disorders, seven study participants developed esophageal cancer, but the development of esophageal cancer did not appear to be linked to acid damage .
A Path to Recovery
The internal impacts of an eating disorder can lead to pain, distress, and physical discomfort. They may also result in serious medical conditions, including seizures, heart complications, esophageal rupture, and esophageal cancer.
If you may be struggling with an eating disorder, it’s crucial to understand that early physical symptoms can lead to more serious health problems down the road. Reaching out to loved ones and seeking support from qualified treatment professionals can have a life-changing, or even lifesaving, effect.
References National Institute of Mental Health. 2021. Eating Disorders. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/eating-disorders  Mehler, P.S. & Brown, C. (2015). Anorexia nervosa – medical complications. Journal of Eating Disorders. 3(11). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-015-0040-8  Koga, A., Toda, K., Tatsushima, K., Matsuubayashi, S., Tamura, N., Imamura, M., & Kawai, K. (2019). Portal hypertension in prolonged anorexia nervosa with laxative abuse: A case report of three patients. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 52(2), 211–215. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.23007  Masters, M. (2016, March 22). 6 things that can trigger a seizure even if you don’t have epilepsy. Health. https://www.health.com/mind-body/6-things-that-can-trigger-a-seizure-even-if-you-dont-have-epilepsy  Milano, W., Milano, L., & Capasso, A. (2018). Health consequences of bulimia nervosa. Biomedical Research and Clinical Practice. 3(1). 1–5. http://dx.doi.org/10.15761/BRCP.1000158  Sato, Y. & Fukudo, S. (2015). Gastrointestinal symptoms and disorders in patients with eating disorders. Clinical Journal of Gastroenterology. 8, 255–263. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12328-015-0611-x
About Timberline Knolls
Timberline Knolls is a residential treatment center located on 43 beautiful acres just outside Chicago, offering a nurturing recovery environment for women and girls age 12 and older who are struggling with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health conditions. An adult partial hospitalization program (PHP) is available for step-down and for women to directly admit. By serving with uncompromising care, relentless compassion, and an unconditional joyful spirit, we help our residents and clients help themselves in their recovery. For more information, please visit www.timberlineknolls.com.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published on October 6, 2022. Published on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on October 6, 2022